In 2016 Academy

by Meghan Murphy, Public Information Officer and Recruitment Coordinator, CNSM

Summer may be half way over, but it’s not too late to get in the car and take an epic geoadventure down the Parks Highway.

Take it from 33 rising high school freshmen and sophomores from the North Slope and Northwest Arctic who flew to Fairbanks this summer. They took a six-day geologic field trip along the Parks Highway and surrounding areas as part of the GeoFORCE Alaska program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Even though they were learning college-level geology and taking daily quizzes, Amyaa Edwards-Davis from Barrow said the trip was great.

“The whole part about not being in a room,” she said. “That was the best part. Every place we went to was like a fresh breath. It was something new to learn, and it was interesting.”

They got to see polygonal ice wedges, coal that had been on fire thousands of years ago, and of course, Alaska’s iconic glaciers.

The program’s director, Associate Professor of Geosciences Sarah Fowell, said this is just one of four summer academies the students will complete over the course of four years before they graduate high school. Each academy explores a different part of the United States.

She said the program aims to interest Alaska rural and minority students in math and science fields by teaching them college-level geoscience in the field where they can see and experience spectacular geological features firsthand.

“GeoFORCE Alaska exists because the world is changing,” she said. “Change means challenges. In order to meet those challenges, the state of Alaska needs more scientists and engineers with the unique perspective that students from our rural communities possess.”

So where did the students go and what did they learn?

Day 1: Touring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel

Did you know?

There is a place in the permafrost tunnel where four ice wedges meet and you can see them if you look up. These icy polygons began to form 40,000 years ago during the last ice age, when cracks in the shapes of polygons split the frozen ground — much like the patterns you would see in dry mudflats. During summers, water seeped into the cracks, and during winters the water froze and the ground cracked again. Because of this seasonal freezing and thawing, the ice wedges that filled the cracks slowly grew wider and deeper. The permafrost tunnel cuts through these large ice wedges, but the GeoFORCE Alaska students could still see where the four intersected in the ceiling.

Can I go there?

The tunnel is usually closed to the public, but people can take a virtual tour at

Day 2: Rafting the Chena River

Did you know?

The houses on the inside curves of the Chena River are slowly growing their properties as water loses momentum on the inside bend and deposits sand and silt there. After dropping oranges into the Chena River and watching them float the bends, GeoFORCE Alaska students learned that water moves faster in an inside bend than an outside one. Students followed the experiment with a rafting trip.

Can I go there?

Raft on the Chena on your own boat or rent one from a local outfitter.

Day 3: Looking at rock formations in Healy

Did you know?

Coal seams are easy to see in rock formations east of Healy, an area rich with coal deposits. On rock faces, they look like a black streak painted across the rock. The white rock in the photo is sandstone, but the red rock to the upper left indicates that the coal burned at one time, perhaps ignited through a lightening strike. Coal-seam fires still happen in Healy, with several being reported this year.

Can I go there?

Turn east at Healy and drive over a bridge and past the power plant. A gravel road will take you past sand and coal layers, which are best exposed along a small creek.

Day 4: Hiking at Denali National Park and Preserve

Did you know?

When GeoFORCE Alaska students hiked in Denali National Park and Preserve, they were able to visit the Murie Science and Learning Center where a ranger gave a presentation about the dinosaur fossil footprints found in the park. “The ranger did a nice job of making the science relatable to our students,” said Sylvia Hutchinson, the GeoFORCE Alaska program coordinator. “She told them that the first fossils ever found in Denali were discovered by a UAF student not too long ago. She helped our students understand that geology is relevant, and the next great discovery can be made tomorrow by a student just like them.”

Can I go there?

Yes. The learning center is free and offers free and fee-based education programs.

More info:

Day 5: Hiking the Matanuska Glacier

Did you know?

The Matanuska Glacier on Glenn Highway is about 27 miles long and four miles wide, making it the largest glacier in the United States accessible by car. As student Tahayla Baker from Kotzebue walked on it with crampons, she said she learned her favorite geology term of the trip: “Crevasse — it’s a crack or fissure in a glacier,” she said. “I like how you say it.” Guides also showed her and the other students how to safely travel on a glacier, which is always changing as it shifts, moves and cracks.

Can I go there?

The glacier is about an hour northeast of Anchorage and guided hikes are available. More info:

Day 6, a.m. trip: Boating to Portage Glacier

Did you know?

The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center marks the spot of Portage Glacier’s furthest advance and sits on the glacier’s terminal moraine. The moraine is an accumulation of dirt and rocks that the glacier pushed along or carried and then left behind as it retreated. GeoFORCE Alaska students saw a movie at the visitor center and then took a boat ride to see the glacier, which is no longer visible from the visitor center. GeoFORCE Alaska student Solomon Sage from Kivalina said of the boat ride, “I liked that it took us close to the glacier.”

Can you go there?

Yes. The visitor center is free, although the boat ride costs money. More info:

Day 6, p.m. trip: Walking on sand dunes

Did you know?

There are large and very steep sand dunes in Anchorage at the edge of Kincaid Park that are slowly migrating into the forest because of wind, which can be blustery at times. GeoFORCE Alaska Director Sarah Fowell said sand dunes naturally migrate over time as the wind picks up and redeposits sand. She also proposed an interesting question. “Since both sand dunes and glaciers move, albeit slowly, what feature would win if there were a race between the two?” We don’t know, but it’s a fun question to ponder as you dig your toes into the sand.

Can you go?

Yes. Although it is hard to travel on truly windy days, there are nearby paths in a forest to walk on as a backup plan.

More info:

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